The show centres on a rare black and white lithograph of The Scream, created after the painted version and two drawings of the image. Though we tend to think of The Scream in livid hues, it was this black and white print, not the coloured versions, which was widely distributed during Munch’s lifetime. It was this version, not the painting, which first made Munch — and the anguished image — famous.
The 1895 print also includes a rare and revealing inscription by Munch – absent in the colour versions – which reveals the picture’s inspiration and intent. Counter to popular interpretations of the picture as a figure screaming, the English translation to Munch’s inscription reads: “I felt a great Scream pass through nature”.
As Giulia Bartrum, curator at the British Museum, describes, the artwork can therefore be viewed as “a person hearing a ‘scream’ and not, as many people continue to assume and debate, a person screaming.”
Munch was not alone in discerning a general wail at the end of the 19th century. As intense urbanization, mechanization, and a rapidly globalizing capitalism wreaked political and economic upheaval across Europe, German neurological expert Richard von Krafft-Ebing declared an epidemic of nervous anxiety across the continent.
“Millions of people who used to live a simple but comfortable life today are factory workers, depending on international trade balances… As people rush to the cities, these develop at the expense of physical and above all mental health….”
As his artistic renown grew, Munch experienced this febrile European climate first-hand, hurtling between the burgeoning metropolises of Oslo, Paris, and Berlin, the landscape blurred in rushing window views. In 1912, the artist had simultaneous shows in Vienna, Munich, Oslo, Paris, Amsterdam, and Cologne.
It was a cosmopolitan schedule, typifying the more privileged tier of fin de siècle society, but nevertheless an existence steeped in anxiety and nihilism. Both Munch’s mother and much-loved elder sister, Sophie, were among the huge swathes of Europe’s 19thcentury populace killed by tuberculosis.
The artist remained traumatized by these deaths all his life and developed a paranoia over his own health. He attested to a life-long anxiety, stating “Disease and insanity and death were the black angels that stood by my cradle.”